That was little more than 16 months ago, but it seems like another age. Never has any US politician's reputation crumbled so quickly.
Obama's position is beyond dire. According to Rasmussen's latest ratings, just 25 per cent of Americans "strongly approve" of Obama's performance, while 41 per cent "strongly disapprove". His presidential approval rating is -16. His ratings for honesty and for being firm and decisive have plummeted. Nor is this simply a backlash from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill: as long ago as last November, Obama had reached a point where fewer than half of Americans thought he would make the right decisions for the country. Even then he had negative ratings on the economy, Afghanistan, Iraq, unemployment, illegal immigration, the federal budget deficit – and on health care, his supposed flagship policy.
What's to like? is the evident response of a formerly infatuated electorate to Obama's car-crash presidency. On his current showing, he could not win an election against George W Bush; but it is not Obama who is up for election – it is his hapless Democrat colleagues who have a rendezvous with the voters at the Congressional elections in just five months. Psephologists have been making much of the fact that black voters, the only constituency among whom the President's popularity remains high, are inflating his otherwise low rating in the Rasmussen surveys by an estimated seven points.
So what? is the layman's natural response: they are real voters and their votes are as good as anyone else's. The pointy-head polling analysts, however, are not indulging in dismissive racism, but trying to establish the underlying realities of the Congressional elections. Traditionally, a president's personal rating is assumed to read across to the House and Senate contests. At national level, it is a basic guide to the relative prospects of the Democrat and Republican parties. If, however, one clearly identifiable demographic within the polling data – in this instance black voters – is registering an anomaly in the shape of a popularity spike, it is possible to analyse its electoral significance.
The US population is approximately 75 per cent white, 13 per cent Hispanic and 12 per cent black. The Hispanics are in tune with the majority of the electorate, since Obama's popularity among them has tumbled by 20 per cent. So the Democrats must rely on black voters. The bad news for the Democrats, as they well know, is that black voters are heavily concentrated in a limited number of electoral areas. There are 31 congressional districts with a black population of more than 40 per cent; altogether, there are 132 districts where the black population is above the national average. Against that, there are 303 districts where the numbers of black voters are less than the national average, including 177 where fewer than 5 per cent of the population are black.
It is an electoral situation vaguely comparable to the disadvantage suffered by the Liberal Democrats in Britain under the 'first past the post' system, compared to PR. It means, in bald terms, that the prospects for the Democrats in the Congressional elections are even worse than Obama's low poll ratings would suggest. He is dragging his party down with him: the number of declared Democrats in the United States is now at its lowest figure since Rasmussen began tracking it eight years ago. The imagined jewel in the crown, Obama's health care law, has turned into a millstone: beyond resenting it, 60 per cent of Americans today actively want to repeal it.
Another problem for Democrat candidates is that the black voters whom they are hoping will come to their rescue do not share their values or social agenda. This was demonstrated when homosexual marriage in California was repealed by referendum on the day Barack Obama was elected, ironically as a consequence of the increased black voter registration that organisations like Acorn had promoted as part of the Obama campaign. The kind of issues that float the boats of Nancy Pelosi and white liberals in Washington sink like a stone among the black electorate.
Obama's foreign policy, from day one, was an excursion into humiliation and impotence. Now his cack-handed, cantankerous reaction to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill ("I've seen rage from him," reported White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, referring to the President's "clenched jaw" at meetings) has further discredited a president who was never more than a soundbite-emitting hologram. From The One to zero in just 16 months – the myth has ended.